Miami Marlins

Marlins ace Jose Fernandez focusing on off-speed stuff in spring

Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez delivers the ball during the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the New York Mets, Thursday, March 17, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla.
Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez delivers the ball during the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the New York Mets, Thursday, March 17, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. AP

Sweating and with his white baseball pants soiled by diamond dirt, Jose Fernandez was talking to a group of reporters in front of his locker when he looked up at the clubhouse TV and saw the Marlins score a couple of runs to tie Sunday’s game with the Cardinals.

“The game ain’t over yet, guys,” said Fernandez, pleased to see his teammates crawl out of the deficit he left behind when he came out in the fourth inning.

Most players aren’t concerned with outcomes in the mostly meaningless month of March. The majority of them are usually showered, dressed and on their way home before the final out.

Fernandez cares though.

“It’s unbelievable for me still to wake up every day and come to spring training, come to pitch in the big leagues,” Fernandez said. “It’s not even real yet.”

This is only Fernandez’s third spring training in big-league camp.

In 2013, he was assigned uniform number 78 and given a temporary locker stall in the middle of the clubhouse, the lockers given to minor-leaguers with little to no chance of making the team. He appeared in one game, recorded two outs and was demoted to the minors.

“I was right there,” Fernandez said, pointing to that spot. “I’ll never forget.”

When injuries knocked out two starters on the eve of the season opener, Fernandez was quickly recalled and inserted into the rotation. That was the season he was named Rookie of the Year.

In spring training of 2014, having already ascended to ace status, Fernandez liked to show off his arm, throwing BB’s in Grapefruit League games and racking up as many strikeouts as he could.

“I was just throwing back then,” Fernandez acknowledged. “I was just trying to overpower everybody.”

Fernandez didn’t pitch at all last spring while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Which leads us to this spring training, his third. Fernandez has changed his approach. Instead of pounding his catcher’s mitt with fastball after fastball, he has toned it down, working instead on his off-speed pitches, his changeup and curve.

Sunday was a perfect example of that.

Of the 79 pitches he totaled against the Cardinals, Fernandez estimated that anywhere from 60 to 65 percent were either changeups or breaking balls.

“Even in counts that I would never do it in the season, I kept throwing them,” Fernandez said. “It’s completely different. The way I’m approaching it now is about the long season, not the result.

“I’m not going to lie to you and say I don’t care. That’s not the case. I don’t [treat] any game as an exhibition. I think every game is I’ve got to beat you, I’ve got to give my team a chance to win. But, obviously, you do different things now because you can afford to do it.”

With a full count on Tommy Pham, for instance, Fernandez came to the plate with a breaking ball. Pham hit it over the fence for a two-run homer.

Fernandez’s pitching line was not pretty. He gave up five hits and walked three in  3 2/3 innings. He also struck out six. But, as he said later, “I’m not worried about the results” at this early stage.

Come Friday, though, when he faces the New York Yankees in an exhibition at Marlins Park, he intends to go into attack mode. No more tinkering.

“I think Friday will be more realistic,” he said. “Big stadium. You’re going to feel it more. Adrenalin is different. Everything is different.”

THIS AND THAT

▪ Tyler Kolek, the Marlins’ top pitching prospect and second overall pick in the 2014 draft, saw the team doctor on Sunday because of right arm soreness. Kolek said he was unsure whether he would have an MRI on the arm.

▪ Manager Don Mattingly said that he would likely pitch all relievers Saturday in the second of two exhibitions against the Yankees at Marlins Park.

COMING UP

▪ Monday: Marlins LHP Chris Narveson at Washington Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg, 1:05 p.m., Viera.

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